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Bob Malone / Essay

The Muse Is A Bitch (But I Love Her)
by Bob Malone

"This is my swan song, my dreary and drawn song
my call Forest Lawn song: my swan song."

Dave Frishberg


I'm not fuckin' around this time. I've laid in a fifth of Jack Daniel's and a long night's supply of cheap cigars. The phone is turned off. Clive Davis, Lenny Waronker & David Geffen could make a conference call to my house to have a personal bidding war over me, for all I care - they'll have to talk to my machine. I'm not coming out 'till I write the best song I've ever written. All of this is very wonderful, in theory, except that it's now been two hours since I sharpened my pencil and sat down at my Sohmer upright and not only have I not yet come up with this proported Best Song Ever, I haven't come up with anything at all. Not one God-damn thing. I am absolutely paralyzed with fear. The problem is this: I'm thinking about Tangled up in Blue, I'm thinking about One For My Baby, I'm thinking about New York State Of Mind. I'm thinking about God Only Knows and The Grand Tour and Stardust. I'm thinking about Harold Arlen and Randy Newman and Chuck Berry and Dave Frishberg and Elvis Costello and Steven Sondheim. I'm thinking about Paul Simon & Steve Earle & Leonard Cohen & Mary Chapin Carpenter & Robbie Robertson. I'm thinking about George & Ira and John & Paul and Elton & Bernie and Rogers & Hart (I'm sorry about breaking up the thematic unity of this sentence, but Dick & Lorenz just wasn't gettin' it). I'm thinking: who the fuck am I to even try to put a pen near a piece of paper and call the result a song !?! And as if this wasn't bad enough, I'm also feeling vaugely threatened by my own modest body of work. I'm thinking of the ones I can play night after night without getting bored, the ones that always get the crowd going, the ones that work so well that I honestly can't even remember how I ever managed to write them in the first place. I'm thinking of that inevitable moment that comes in the life of almost every creative person (at least mere mortals such as myself), when he picks up his pen and begins to do what he must do and has always done, totally unaware that his best work is already behind him and it's all downhill from there. In short, I'm thinking: Malone- you're doomed, give it up, you haven't even had your 15 minutes, and you already can't even top yourself, let alone people that are better than you even on their worst day.

"Once, I popped them out like waffles
The good ones and the awfuls, a new one every day
But now I find I'm uninspired, my wig's no longer wired
I've nothing left to say, but I'll say it anyway..."

Dave Frishberg

My piano (the same one I've had since I was 11), the most prized and beloved inanimate object in my life, the most comfortable seat in the house, suddenly seems alien and threatening. I'm sitting there staring at it - it's sitting there staring back, as if to say: Well? Can't you come up with anything, you worthless piece of shit? Man, I remember when you couldn't even get through a C scale without tripping over your dick. You can't fool me, you pretender. And by the way, have you heard the new Dylan album? He's still got it. What have you got - ya loser?

"If I ate alphabet soup, I could shit better lyrics than that."
Johnny Mercer

I start to noodle - all of it terribly competent and dreadfully uninspired. All of it totally useless (unless I were to contemplate getting into the jingle writing field). This goes on for a while, then, one of my normally loyal and well behaved fingers betrays me - a mistake! Hey, that was interesting! All those years of classical training and then, once again, all those years of not paying attention during my piano lessons are paying off. All of a sudden, Dylan is old, Cole Porter is dead, the Beatles have indeed broken up- I'm not afraid of them anymore - hah!! I'm in the zone - I can feel the muse hovering. She is elusive and difficult (like most of the women I tend to be attracted to), but if I play it just right, I think I can make her mine tonight. I build on the mistake, forcing myself into unfamiliar territory - like when I write on guitar (an instrument that is so alien to me that originality or incompetence are my only choices). I'm suddenly overcome by that elusive euphoria that only comes in a creative moment. Anyone who has ever felt it will tell you that it's the most addictive drug they know. I'm feeling sorry for anyone who doesn't write songs - they'll never know what this feels like. Miraculously, a melody unlike any other is forming under my hands - this is the beauty of the thing - there are only twelve notes yet there will always be a new way to arrange them. I am fifteen pounds overweight, short by today's standards (shorter, even, than my old man), plagued by bad habits that seem impossible to get any control over, and living just slightly above the poverty line; yet, at this moment, I feel like the most flawless motherfucker who ever walked God's green earth. This is why we keep doing this. This is why we avoid doing this.

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."
Mark Twain

There are songwriters who speak of How-I-Wrote-That-Hit-Song-In-Fifteen-Minutes very casually (as if they weren't on their knees speaking in tounges and thanking God and sonny Jesus or Buddah or Elvis or whatever flavor they prefer when they realized they just finished the song that was going to buy the pool and the Hollywood Hills home and the Lexus). Paul McCartney claims that he woke from a dream and completed Yesterday 15 minutes later (I am going to assume that this means Silly Love Songs and The Girl Is Mine were written due to an unfortunate period of chronic insomnia). Most people I know that write songs have a couple that they say they finished in one short sitting - often these are their best ones. I sincerely envy these people. I, personally, have never experienced such a thing. For me, songwriting is more like manual labor of the mind - kind of like shoveling your way through a twelve foot high snowbank with your brain. I bow at the alter of re-writes. In my world, a song can't possibly be done if I haven't spent at least three months on it. Craft is my religion - and fuck the dumb-ass critics who all put Never Mind The Bullocks- Here's The Sex Pistols at the top of their sacred Top-Ten-Greatest-Albums-Ever lists and sneer at those who build songs to last - The Pistols were a joke and the joke's on the critics. Besides, when it comes to rock critics, I think Truman Capote said it best when he said: "That's not writing - that's typing"
(unfortunately, Capote was talking about Jack Kerouac when he said that and he was wrong. I, however, am not wrong - just read anything by Robert Hillburn and you'll see what I mean). Please forgive me, I digress. What I mean to say is - for me, songwriting is hard work. It's like giving birth - it hurts like hell but you love your children.

"It's a good thing you left me, baby, 'cause I was running out of songs to write
Complacency had got the best of me, I'd given in to the domestic life
But now that I'm alone, just me and the muse, one thing has become very clear
You're so much more of an inspiration now that you're gone
Than you ever were when you were here..."

Bob Malone (sorry)

I always find it rather alarming when things are going smoothly in my life. Don't get me wrong: as a human being, I think that having money in the bank, a stable, nurturing relationship, and control (however temporary) over my personal demons is a wonderful thing, but as a songwriter - it pisses me off. I mean, writing songs is hard enough when things suck and you got stuff to write about, but when you're feeling happy and well adjusted - fagedaboudit!! Who wants to write songs when they're having fun instead? When you find yourself at this point, you generally have three choices:

a. Start writing dance music.
b. Intentionally fuck up your life, get some material, and get back to work.
c. Quit

I'm going to assume that if you're reading this at all, you would agree that option a is out of the question (after all, when it comes to dance music: that's not writing - that's typing). Option c would be the sane choice even when things are going great - but songwriters are not sane people. That leaves no choice but to go with option b. It's the creative person's cross to bear. Being an expert in the field of fucking up one's life (if not necessarily an expert in the field of writing songs), I have, over the years, developed a ten-point plan that, if followed closely, should help any songwriter through even the nastiest bout of writer's block. I would like to share it with you now:

1. Commence long term drinking binge.
2. Conspicuously cheat on wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/live-in lover of 3 years (par ticularly effective if done with an EX-wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/live-in lover of 3 years- however, someone you just met in a bar while working on #1 will also do nicely).
3. Break up with wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/live-in lover of 3 years.
4. Date someone much younger than you.
5. Date someone much older than you.
6. Fall madly in love with someone who is unutterably cruel to you (and who also, if at all possible, is in love with someone else).
7. Get back together with wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/live-in lover of 3 years.
8. Quit drinking for an extended period (this type of reality based activity is extremely dangerous and should only be attempted by professionals).
9. Get religion.
10. See #1.

These activities should return your routine addled brain cells to a somewhat more recog-nizable state - unless, of course, you've already bought the minivan and the gas barbeque, in which case there's not a whole lot that can be done. Well, I think I've gone on long enough with all of this. I mean, lets face it, I'm only writing this as an excuse to avoid going back over to the piano and working on a song (it's a comfort to know, however, that someone out there will probably read this as an excuse to avoid working on a song). Besides, all whining and bitching aside, I feel extremely lucky to be able to write songs and have an audience for them. Ask anyone who does this
and they'll tell you what I'm telling you now - to have written a song and have even just one person be moved by it is the greatest feeling in the world. The muse is a bitch- but I love her- and I'll never leave her.

"So don't you worry 'bout my broken heart, or what you put me through
'Cause you unlocked my writer's block the day you cut me loose
And not a moment we shared together would I have ever missed
'Cause maybe, baby, I didn't get you- but at least I got a song out of this..."

Bob Malone
March 4, 1998
Los Angeles, CA